Customizing Education

One of the problems with our industrial era university system is that it provides a commoditized service rather than one customized to the needs, passions, and desires of the individual learners. This has become even more pronounced since the renaissance of the classical Core Curriculum since the late 1970s and 1980s, whose origins have more to do with the academy’s position as the final vanguard of late capitalism (that is, corporatist capitalism) than with the practical concerns of the learners themselves.

Entrepreneurial capitalism, which favors disruptive innovation, agile non-permanent institutions, and accepts chaos and uncertainty is the next stage of market development, one that will produce a new era of invention and widespread wealth and far more equality than we have ever witnessed before. Unfortunately, our commoditized university system is preventing us from rapidly making the transition.

Education is a peculiar business. It is the only sector whose end-product and end-customer are the same. Given the diversity of the customers, one would expect a diversity of production processes. Instead we have several thousand factories in the world attempting to make the same product and reverse engineering the perceived gold standard of educational manufacturing: Harvard.

Whether a person attends Harvard or a state school in the deep South, the body of knowledge being passed on to the ‘student’ is roughly the same. The professors will be different, the networking value of the four-year experience will be dramatically different, and the way society perceives their respective graduates will be different, but the aim and process are essentially analogous. Teaching is done through highly rigid disciplines, and the extent of customization for the student takes place in elective course selection (to the extent that they even have many elective opportunities with more and more subjects being considered ‘essential’).

Moreover, the opinions and approaches the faculty take will be basically the same. Students attending university are unlikely to be exposed to any truly disruptive mode of thinking, and only the most conservative students will find significant challenges to their views & assumptions. The bureaucratic nature of the modern academy generates conformism and ladder-climbing among both students and faculty.

The alternative is a carefully crafted, customized learning experience that is co-curated by ‘student’ and ‘professor,’ though such labels do more harm than good. Let’s use ‘learner’ and ‘learning coach’ instead. The learning process would begin by getting to the heart of what each learner’s motivations and passions are. This is not an interest inventory. We shouldn’t be concerned with what university subjects they find the most enjoyable. Rather, we should be concerned with what kinds of problems learners find interesting and then proceed to learning the skills and knowledge necessary to put together real solutions to those problems.

Contrived lab experiments are never a substitute for real experience, and a customized education would be replete with real experience, including what would undoubtedly be lots of real failure. Learning coaches should be highly skilled in assumption-challenging and probing interrogation of learners, and they should take a meaningful interest in the learners they are responsible for mentoring. Much of our society’s coldness and atomization stems from the perverse ideal of disinterestedness in all realms of society, but especially in education and medicine, two of the most intimate areas of human experience. We learn to compartmentalize the different facets of our lives, and then we wonder how we can be so inhumane to one another. This is a trend that should be reversed on its own merits, but reversing it will inure substantial benefits to the learning process.

Furthermore, there should be no expiration date on learning. Graduation is an archaic notion we should abandon in its entirety. Life-long learning should be the new expectation, and it should be tied to the creative activities of the learner over the course of her life, in the context of a unique community of fellow learners solving their own problems and pursuing their own passions.

Project Exosphere, which will be launched later this year in Valparaiso, Chile, is a problem-solving syndicate and renegade alternative to the commoditized higher education that pervades the world today. Project Exosphere focuses on combining close relationships, deep community, and an open approach to learning and entrepreneurship that exists nowhere in the world today.

We have a world of more than 7 billion diverse customers who all have different needs, wants and dreams. In order to meet their incredibly diverse demands, we need hundreds of millions of creative, agile entrepreneurs each with unique skills, passions, knowledge, and experience to come up with solutions for all of earth’s people. Our commoditized factory university system isn’t going suffice.